Until June of last year, Elvis Costello was a computer analyst in Acton, England. Now he's a rising star in what is generally known as "punk rock," but which, at least philosophically, is closer to "Prufrock."
Shall I eat a peach? Shall I sing a hard-as-nails rock song?
The Eliot theme was boredom; the Costello theme is "bitterness." The common denominator is disillusionment. Which, of course, is hardly new, least of all in music.
And which is deceptive in the matter of Elvis Costello who says he's 22 (but I wanna see the birth certificate, notarized please) Once Willie Alexander, the world's worst warm-up group, left the stage, Costello and his three-piece band, played a lively if not terribly noteworthy concert at the Leona Theatre in Homestead Sunday night.
How Costello got into the punk rock category is something of a mystery, because he bears no physical — and little musical — resemblance to the movement personified by, say, The Sex Pistols or Kiss. Costello, in fact, is one of the most ungainly and incongruous figures ever to "make it" in rock. A Mick Jagger he's not. On stage he punctuates his basic knock-kneed stance with occasional spasmodic two-steps. For threads, he prefers sensible jacket and slacks, plus JFK skinny necktie. The haircut is your standard $3 barber-shop job.
He's the rock world's equivalent of Icelandic Airlines — a no-frills performer who looks like a magazine salesman, a cross between Buddy Holly and Woody Allen.
Leaving aside the charmless masochism of his motivations ("guilt and revenge"), Costello has at least one thing going for him; a well-crafted first album called My Aim Is True from which most of his brief (70-minute) Homestead concert was drawn. Chief songs among these; "Red Shoes" "I'm Not Angry" "Miracle Man" and "Less Than Zero" (aimed nicely at the old British fascist leader Oswald Mosley) — all performed with excitement and power — too much power actually, resulting in a decibel level sufficient to drown out those "endearingly elusive" lyrics (to quote the cloyingly evasive Rolling Stone) for which he is celebrated.
Sadly, Costello live is less impressive than Costello recorded. At the Leona, we lost the careful studio modulation which balanced vocals and instrumentals. We also lost "Alison" (his album's title song), a gorgeous and incisive ballad which the singer declined to sing.
What we didn't lose was Elvis' demonic and deafeningly amplified rhythms which more or less sufficed to bring the thrills-without-frills gig to life in one of the most splendid old theatres in Pittsburgh. (the peeling grandeur of the Leona has to be seen to be believed. The Marquee! The Chandeliers! The Falling Plaster! It must be preserved and rehabilitated.)
Elvis Costello's music is original, despite comparisons with Van Morrison, Graham Parker and Bruce (Terminal Hype) Springsteen. Though his guitar playing is grade B, and his band grade C, in his better moments he is fun to listen to.
Still, it's hard to resist some cynicism about his "bitterness," recently crowned by the revelation that he wants to die before he gets old. "I'd rather kill myself, I'm not going to be around to witness my artistic decline"
Talented though he may be, Mr.Costello ought to focus on the incline first.